“To make a good salad is to be a brilliant diplomatist - the problem is entirely the same in both cases. To know how much oil one must mix with one's vinegar.”
Much maligned as a tasteless health food, salad holds an important place in American cuisine. An estimated 20% of Americans children and adults eat salad in any one day, primarily for lunch or dinner. In honor of National Salad Month, I’d like to discuss salad and why it deserves a prime place on your everyday table.
A short history of salad
From Greek and Roman times, salads have been a part of common cuisine but their popularity has waxed and waned. The first salads were raw greens & vegetables with dressings which were considered to be good for digestion when served at the start of a meal. During the Renaissance, salads became more complicated, with expensive ingredients, to show off wealth. In the United States, salad recipes appear in early cookbooks, but popularity really started to take off in the 1920s, when salads like Waldorf, Caesar and Cobb salad from famous restaurants elevated salads to a luxury food worthy of copying at home. Cookbooks of this time also contained fruit, macaroni/pasta, and jello or molded salad recipes. Another surge in popularity occurred in the 1970s and 80s, with the health food movement and rise of the ubiquitous salad bar. The future of salad seems to be tech-laden, with salad vending machines, lettuce-farming robots, and cashless salad restaurant chains with mobile ordering & delivery.
Why you should eat more salad
Even without the bells and whistles though, salad remains one of the most healthful foods out there, accessible to anyone with even basic cooking skills. Here’s my top 5 reasons:
More veggies. It refocuses your meal from meats, dairy, and starches to more vegetables. With rare exceptions, more vegetables are better. Salads help you get more in—which means more nutrients like lutein, beta carotene, vitamin K, magnesium, vitamin C, and fiber. With a large daily salad, you are much closer to your 5-9 recommended servings of fruits and vegetables.
Salads are real diet food, in that they can fit with almost any diet. Everyone agrees on veggies.
Works with all types of foods are very adaptable to different palates and flavor profiles. Even with the same greens base, change a few toppings or the dressing, and you have an entirely different food.
Salads are an affordable food, especially when made at home. Compared to other healthy but expensive food trends like juicing or power smoothies, salads cost a lot less with many of the same benefits.
Easy to make. Preparation does not require specialty ingredients or equipment. Once you have mastered a few basic food prep skills, such as chopping and making a basic dressing, you are set. No recipes blogs or meal prep kits required.
**With some health conditions like GI disorders, lots of raw vegetables are not the best idea so you may need more cooked ingredients than raw, but most people can incorporate at least some raw vegetables. For individual guidance, of course, come in for a consult with us!
Building a basic salad
My first piece of advice is don’t torture yourself. Eating a salad should be a pleasure, not a punishment. Start with ingredients you like, and keep expanding your range. Over time, you tastes will adapt, & you’ll appreciate the flavor of the vegetables more, but allow yourself time to get there. Same goes for prep—packaged ingredients are fine are first, but with experimentation & practice you will get faster and more efficient.
Start with greens. Whatever kind you like, but the fresher the better. Wash and dry if not done already. Tear or gently chop into bite size pieces.
Chopped or sliced vegetables. For harder vegetables like broccoli, cucumbers or carrots, or softer vegetables like tomatoes. Usually 3-5 types cut into bite sizes is ideal for variety of texture and taste. For advanced salad makers, try different cuts like spirals or julienne. Fruits can work, too.
Meat, cheese, seafood, or eggs. Optional, of course, but these ingredients may help you change your idea of a salad from a side dish to a meal while providing protein, B vitamins, and iron.
Lightly roasted/toasted nuts/seeds, or cooked beans or grains. A few of these add crunch, fiber, and a different range of nutrients like zinc and lignans than your vegetable base.
Mushrooms can be a tasty addition to any salad, but with the possible exception of white button mushrooms, all mushrooms should be cooked. Cooking neutralizes potentially toxic chemicals many mushrooms contain in their raw form. On salad, cooked and chilled mushrooms work well. The texture of mushrooms doesn’t degrade with cooking and a little marinade can yield a broad range of flavor.
I’d suggest adding at least one different ingredient, to make it interesting. Some of my favorites are olives (for healthy omega 9 fats with a little salt), jicama (a slightly sweet alternative to radish or carrot), herbs (cilantro, parsley, chives, mint, or whatever you have, even a couple leaves can really change the taste), sea veggies (iodine-packed and great for salt fanatics), and leftovers you have lying around (cooked veggies or grains, for example)
Dressing. Don’t skip it—you need some healthy fats and an acid to help absorb many of the vitamins and minerals in the salad. Plus, it brings the salad together. Although you may need it at first, I strongly suggest you get away from bottled dressings and start making your own—they are much healthier and a fraction of the price. You can become a master dressing maker in no time—just get the right ingredients together and practice. Check out my guidelines below for guidance.
And of course, you can scrap all of these ideas and do what you’d like. There’s no wrong way to do it.
A final hint is to make sure you chew. Raw foods especially need to be chewed well to start the digestion process, so you get maximum nutritional benefit with the fewest side effects. No matter how you chop it, chew it, braise it, or phrase it, the most important thing is to make vegetables a daily habit.
Dressing Guidelines (not a recipe)
Good dressings are all about proportions, not recipes. Getting away from recipes is important when developing a cooking skill. Also, recipes lock you into an amount, and it’s almost always the wrong amount! I think dressings taste much better when freshly made, and then you make as much or as little as you need. Here’s how I make a salad dressing:
Equipment-- A small hand held whisk in a large bowl works best, but you can use a blender or electric whisk too.
Acid 1 part—citrus juice or vinegar
Emulsifier ½ part—mustard, mayo, nut or seed butter, egg (think Caesar salad), tomato or anchovy paste. Optional, but helps hold the dressing together with less whisking.
Herbs or other flavorings—finely chopped, either fresh or dried
Whisk the acid and emulsifier with a small amount of salt and your flavorings. Whisk in 3 parts oil of until thickened. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Some of my favorite combos are:
Apple cider vinegar, garlic, pepper, liquid aminos, and flax oil
Dijon mustard, minced shallot, herbs de Provence, red wine vinegar, and olive oil
Rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, grated ginger, toasted sesame oil, light sesame oil
Lemon juice, tahini, parsley or mint, and grapeseed or avocado oil
For more food history, check out The Food Timeline